Jesus’ Love

I spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus’ love. I think about how much he loves my students, and how I need to love them like he does. I think about how often I fail to love them like he does, about how when I fail he remains faithful, faithful, faithful to them. But with all that thought, I forget that he loves me too. Jesus’ love is for me.

He does not care about my filthy-rags good works and good words. He loves the heart of the matter, the heart of me. He died for that heart. He died so that he could hold that heart in his hands and whisper inexorable love through the rot to its core.

Or sometimes he speaks louder than a whisper. In an entry from more than two years ago, during my senior year of college I wrote, “When I am silent, He shouts and it hurts. Those pipes and those bright figures in glass will not remain always still. The ‘great sloth heart’ is moving.” Last week was that kind of week, and oh, I thank God for it.

I MCed thesis presentations two nights last week. I was so nervous about it that I actually lost my appetite for about two days, but then one by one I stood face to face with eight students before they stepped on stage. They fiddled nervously with their printed speeches, and without asking I could tell that their mouths were dry and their palms were sweaty. I got to look them in the eye and tell them that in forty minutes, they would have done the impossible. And then I got to step up on stage with them, and, sometimes haltingly, pray before those assembled. And forty minutes later when we applauded, their shoulders would drop, they would take their first deep breath in two hours, and you could see in their eyes that the color had come back into the world, but brighter than ever before, because each had just slain a giant. I stood tall and proud and forgetful of my fear.

Also, on Thursday, two of my classes of juniors turned in an assignment to me in which they had to compare themselves to one of the foreign missionaries we studied. I asked them to answer honestly about their interests, their personalities, their characters, even their spiritual resources. I have only begun to grade them, but this is perhaps my favorite assignment I have ever given. I do not know if it has academic value, in fact, I doubt that it does, but almost every single child has sat quietly with his or her soul for at least a moment (a feat for some of them) and then, in some small way, laid it out on the page before me. I am moved by the shy willingness of many of them to look themselves in the eye.

Really, I think most teenagers want two things. They want to be seen. Even the quiet ones want to be seen, even the ones who push you away want to be seen and want to be known. They want to be seen and they want to be loved. To be loved is to be taken in and named and accepted. For some of them almost everything they do and say is based on these two deeply felt desires. I try my best to follow through when I see it in their eyes. And I often, often fail.

As we get older (and, of course, I am my only firsthand experience of getting older) we gain confidence and weight and complexity of thought, and those intense desires for recognition and love get pushed down and fed less. For most of us, this makes us easier to live with, both for ourselves and for others. But I also think it’s a shame. Because desires, like Wisdom on the street corner, call out loudly for fulfillment. And the fulfillment at the end of the road, the voice that always and forever seeks to answer those calls, is Jesus.

Because Jesus sees and knows, oh he knows all about it. And more than that, despite that, through that, because of that, he loves. He is Love, bleeding and victorious. Those things my students want? They can have them. They were made for those things, and so were you and I. Christ makes us clean and he takes us home. Rejoice.

A Servant of God in the Winter and the Springtime

It’s spring here today!

This blog has changed substantially since I graduated from college almost two years ago. A week or so ago, I found myself reading back over old entries from early 2014, when I was racing through drafts of my novel and watching the world turn to spring at my feet faster than I knew it ever could. That girl poured her soul out onto the page fast and thick, in words full of inexhaustible hope.

I don’t do that anymore. Certainly, my circumstances are different now, but so is the soul I have to pour. I will do my best today, though. I will do my best.

There was some lie that I believed way back when, that teaching would feel like a success story. It does not. It feels small and long. On bad days it feels like trudging through the mud in a narrow lane. On good days it feels like removing your own internal organs, and passing them into eager, outstretched hands. I have a Wendell Berry poem by my desk which ends with that: “Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”

This has been a somewhat hard year for me personally. Last semester I spent quite a lot of time dreaming about what it would look like to write, just write, and have all day long with words and silence and clouds of story. At the root of that, I think, was a very private understanding with myself that my talents were not being used properly, that this job could not really be what God meant for me. Surely there had been a mistake. I was not supposed to end up like Zerubbabel, merely a name in the line of begats. I was the kind made to stand on her own.

But, of course, there is no such kind. We all have feet of clay. And with aches and pains, I have learned a good deal in the last month. February is a poignant and exacting teacher. Through a series of little failures and humiliations, grit that got under my nails and bile I had to swallow, I have come to remember: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise.” And now I am sitting hesitantly at the golden feet of my Lord and he is saying to me the same words he spoke over a cowering Moses: “You shall serve God on this mountain.”

That he should say this to me, when I finally deign to listen, is not what surprises me. I half-expected it all along. What surprises me is that he is a different God than I thought. My talents are not wasted in teaching, because a God like this does not want to use my talents. He wants to use my weakness (which there is plenty of). He is a God who may turn my hand leprous to show what he can do. I always say that he loves my students more than I do: well, I must let him.

And just because teaching doesn’t feel like some success story on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t mean it isn’t one. If I am willing, I can be a participant in the victory of the risen Christ. “You shall serve God” is not merely an order, but a promise. A promise that the words I speak in weariness and the lessons I teach three times over will take root, in his good time. I am small. And that is good. He has made me weak, that I may take shelter in his eternal strength.

“Lead me safely on to the eternal kingdom, not asking whether the road be rough or smooth.”

How to Have a Snow Day (Parts I, II, III, and, apparently, IV)

-Be teacher during midterm exam week.

-Receive expected text cancelling Friday while watching movie with roommate.

-Rejoice.

-Relax.

 

Part I: Friday

-Sleep in.

-Smile at snow outside of window.

-Consider actually enjoying snow for once.

-Begin to layer winter clothing.

-Discover heavy boots are MIA.

-Continue to layer winter clothing to make up for deficit of decent boots.

-Gather phone, keys, phone charger, glasses, and similarly layered roommate.

-Realize am probably wearing enough clothing and equipment to go into battle as snow warrior.

-Feel invincible.

-Venture into white, sleety world.

-Climb (small) snowy mountains.

-Arrive at parents’ house.

-Make too-salty cookies.

-Read Wall Street Journal weekend section.

-Revel in Wall Street Journal weekend section.

-Play seven games of Solitaire on floor by wood stove.

-Win only one (by dishonest means).

-Discover heavy boots in parents’ upstairs closet.

-Put on heavy boots and consider possibility of actually becoming snow warrior.

-Ask very nice father for ride home.

-Once home, tromp across street to neighbor-friends’.

-Eat curry.

-Discuss unfortunate bodily functions as well as city council.

-Watch X-Files on squished couch and cover eyes to protect self from aliens.

-Laugh with roommate at people who have cabin fever.

-Make more hot chocolate mix.

 

Part II: Saturday

-Take hot bath.

-Talk to sister on other side of ocean.

-Marvel at ability to speak to sister on other side of ocean.

-Marvel at possibility of sister’s holiday to Netherlands.

-Enjoy marvelling.

-Layer items of winter clothing.

-Put on heavy boots.

-Rejoice in new freedom endowed by heavy boots and also own potential as snow warrior.

-March out alone toward local grocery store to buy supplies for tomato soup and grilled cheese.

-Walk in middle of street because if not now when.

-Become very warm from snow-aerobics (i.e. walking).

-Desperately remove items of winter clothing.

-Wisely decide against removing boots.

-Encounter happy walking couples, happy playing children, happy bundled houses, and angry driver who reproachfully waves self out of road.

-Decide snow turns entire world into Mayberry.

-Become caught up in joy and self-revelation.

-Decide to write blog entry about new person snow has made self to be.

-Arrive home full of good will and with groceries.

-Do yoga to calm rapidity of beating heart from snow-related epiphanies.

-Make pasta (not tomato soup and grilled cheese).

-Listen to Hamilton at behest of sister.

-Stare glowy eyed at computer for hours reading lyrics.

-Imagine Lin-Manuel Miranda writing brilliant things.

-Imagine self writing brilliant things.

-Consider writing blog entry.

-Consider doing laundry.

-Instead, watch angsty indie love movie in dark room.

-Make not-as-salty cookies.

-Learn to play Dominion.

-Lose.

 

Part III: Sunday

-Take too-cold bath.

-Walk to parents’ house.

-Play Scrabble and beat parents (though not brother).

-Ignore fact that parents had Very Bad tiles.

-Eat blueberry coffee cake.

-Play Trivial Pursuit.

-Lose.

-Eat pasta.

-Discover afternoon church is cancelled.

-Read Bible and sing hymns with family instead.

-Consider possibility of Monday school cancellation.

-Dismiss possibility as heresy.

-Walk to local coffee shop to meet roommate.

-Carry on long conversation with roommate and brother mocking others’ inability to drive in snow.

-Play Dominion again.

-Lose again.

-Clean off car and successfully run short errand in it.

-Feel smug and also relieved about driving ability.

-Receive woeful text cancelling Monday.

-Imagine students at home stewing in pots of own exam stress.

-Imagine self, on distant-future-day-when-school-resumes, being doused with said exam stress.

-Stew in pot of future-stress-related stress.

-Grieve.

-Decide no one in weather-weary world wants to read snow-related blog entry.

-Realize self does not want to write said blog entry because self never wants to write lately anyway.

-Answer emails like a grump.

-Eat dinner cooked by nice roommate who makes food pretty.

-Decide even weather-weary world should not miss out on extreme cleverness and wit.

-Begin to draft cleverness and wit.

 

Part IV: Monday

-Wake up to sound of roommate heading off to work.

-Feel wistful.

-Watch Downton.

-Make make ambitiously grocery list including four kinds of cheese.

-Put on clothes and also hat and snow warrior boots.

-Venture.

-Discover main roads are clearer than clear.

-Wish main roads were not clearer than clear so would have excuse to avoid big stores full of tired people and school-aged children.

-Spend slightly too much money on food, mostly unnecessary but delicious prosciutto.

-Arrive home in relief.

-Make self hot chocolate as reward for conquering real world as snow warrior.

-Consider the remote possibility of snow day Part V.

-Dismiss potential Part V as heresy.

-Receive email with school schedule for tomorrow.

-Realize snow day Part V actually is heretical and false and definitively not happening.

-Have mixed feelings.

-Smile at remaining snow outside of window.

-Consider becoming sentimental.

-Decide instead to go ahead and start dinner.

A Different Kind of Studenthood

This may take a while to write, but as I’m beginning, I’m sitting in a room full of freshmen who are writing an in-class essay. There’s a hum of heavy breathing and pencils on paper and turning of pages as they refer to notes in their books. It seems both familiar and distant.

I have been teaching for a year and a half and still it still catches me unawares sometimes that I’m no longer a student. That I’m no longer passing papers down the row, or digging my binder out of my backpack, or throwing caution to the north wind when an essay prompt is set in front of me. The sun is not slanting through the window in the back corner and warming my back, like it is for the kid who sits by the wall. I am up front driving and pulling and pushing. Sometimes my shoulders hurt at the end of the day from the weight of it.

In the moments when it does get calm, though, calm in the midst of the hourly storm, sometimes I remember myself in high school. I liked it. I was a good kid. I cried a lot but I was happy. I was generally sweet and smart. The best things I did were read and write. Also once I gave twenty dollars to a friend just because she needed it. That was the highlight of my good-doing.

I was sensitive. I used to take in every little thing, feel every motion around me, bend with all my weight. I remember laughing and screaming and crying. I remember really, really caring that people saw me laugh. (I did not care if they saw me cry.) Funny. All of my memories are so loud, even though most of the people I went to high school with probably remember me as quiet.

For the past week or so, I have been feeling stabs of envy toward my students. I wish I was still free to ride the waves of my feelings, wallow in my stinging misery, let wild, self-conscious joy overtake me. When I was a teenager, I was very certain the world was mine. It felt lived in. On selfish days, on narrow days, I look at those loud kids I love, and I want the world back.

This is ludicrous, of course. I have re-written this paragraph five or six times in an attempt to tell you why. I have tried to lead into it several ways, but now I will just give up and tell you. God is bigger now than he was back then. Not always closer or easier or clearer, in fact, sometimes just the opposite, but larger and greater and stronger and more, oh yes. How could I ever return to a diminutive God?

That is not all. I “see the choices a bit more clearly.” When I was sixteen and seventeen, I was only just beginning to believe that failure existed. Now I am at what seems to be the designated age for coming to terms with failure. As is, I think, usual, I am finding failures in myself in droves and having to decide each by each, with every failure that rises out of my gut, whether I will fight it or kneel to it. These are the options. Or they would be the options if I served a God who would fit in my pocket.

But because I do not, there is grace. Because I do not, I may give my failures away. Acknowledge them as my bastard offspring and offer them up for destruction to a God who is very large and getting larger by the second. A God who will break me and change me and shape me as the sun warms the back of the tired, nervous kid who sits by the wall.

 

Joy

This school-year began hard. At the end of the first day of school, I walked down the hall to a co-worker’s classroom and sat on a desk and cried. I told her that it wasn’t my students (and it wasn’t), but it was me. I wasn’t sure I was made to do this. I didn’t have enough ability or energy, or perhaps most of all, enough love. I looked at my students and I looked at the teachers around me and I thought that maybe inside of my ribcage, instead of a muscular heart, pumping and giving, that maybe I only had sand. I did not seem to be enough.

And then my grandma died and my sister moved to London within days of one another, and things got oh-so-busy. So busy that I have not written here for over a month, even though I’ve wanted to. By way of an update: I have cried a little, been angry a few times, and laughed more than maybe I should. I have learned what it is to be unexpectedly encouraged through supportive parents and writing poems and silly games at the end of class and getting to act in a play again.

I’m reading through The Jesus Storybook Bible with a couple students, (which is a different story for a different day,) and a few weeks ago while reading about the battle of Jericho, I came across a line that stopped me and held me still: “So it was that God’s people entered their new home. And they didn’t have to fight to get in — they only had to walk.” So maybe my heart need not be a muscular hero, because there already is One. Maybe I am not always called to be a soldier “on the front lines of humanity,” but just a child who walks faithfully after my God. Of course I am not enough. I was never intended to be.

And I don’t know if God meant me for teaching, but right now, he certainly means teaching for me. High-schoolers can be uniquely bitter and uniquely joyful, often within the same hour. Last weekend I went to a regional one-act competition with Caldwell’s drama department. It’s funny to see what happens when you put about three hundred theatre kids in an auditorium for hours on end. They eat it up, they find friends, they get loud, they glow. More than once, in the forty-minute breaks between shows, sixty or seventy of them would congregate down front to play a game called Pony-something-or-other (or maybe it was Something-something-Pony?) They stood in a huge circle and clapped and chanted and danced with each other. They turned exuberant and pink and out-of-breath. I sat curled in my hard seat and watched and laughed and said “absolutely not” over and over whenever our kids bothered me to join them. To watch them dance is to be warm and to be still and to know.

The Fixed Land Receding

Writing is getting harder than ever. I hate that.

I can find the time, and sometimes I can even find the ideas, but there’s a paralysis that creeps up my arms and into my throat when I try to paste words together into thoughts, and it’s getting more and more difficult to fight through it. Like I said, I hate that.

Lately I have been praying that foolish, wonderful prayer for God to teach me fear and trembling. I remember in the prayer room at Grove City, both in the communal journal and on the butcher paper on the walls, our precious overabundance of English majors used to write out John Donne’s sonnet in earnest to their Lord: “Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend…” Sometimes I smile and shiver when I think of all the ways He must be answering those prayers. Then I think of my own prayers and immediately want to pull my knees tight to my chest. Fear and trembling…

Of course, my life is pretty stable, I am returning for a second year of teaching at Caldwell, with almost exactly the same load I had last year, and I am living with my best friend of 14 years in an apartment less than a mile from the house where I grew up. I have never been an adventurer.

And along with getting ready for school, I’ve been watching a lot of Friends. It’s been fun. I’ve been thinking, though. It’s a show that’s supposed to be this iconic look at what it’s like to be in your twenties, how you need something to center yourself on, how you need (wait for it) your friends. Because it’s at this point in our lives that many of us realize that we are finally out there, in the big old world that’s been so criticized and lionized to us. And what and how are we going to do from here?

Perhaps the first thing everyone my age has noticed is that friendships are harder now. I have many friends but I have to work and work to love them and to hear them. I have to set up phone dates and answer texts. Even for the friends here in town, we have to constantly invite one another into our lives, add seeing one another to our to-do list, make the time even when we don’t have it.

When we do get together, we catch up. And I will tell you a dreadful secret: I am sick of catching up. I love these people, and I want very much to know how they’re doing, but at some point I’d like the conversation to progress into something more. (I first realized we were really and truly grown-ups when people my own age started politely asking how my family was.) I’d like to actually participate in living with one another, instead of just getting the recap highlights reel.

We talk about our jobs, our attempts to find them, and our attempts to find the work of our own hands in them. I will say, it’s been a peculiar joy to me to see so many friends light up: This is it! This is hard and this is good. Or even, This job is not what I meant at all, at all. But now I think I know where I’m headed, and once I get out of here, I think I even know how to get there.

I often walk away from these conversations thinking about teaching and high school. When I first got up in front of a class last fall, I was startled at how familiar these kids seemed to me. Their laughter and their shrugs, their bitterness and innocence showed me myself at sixteen and myself at twenty-two. But I was somehow simultaneously shocked to find that there was also a great chasm between us. I am stunned by the minute and large ways you change and grow as you enter the long corridors of your twenties. This is the age when the sounds in your head at last quiet down, when, for better or for worse, you can finally hear yourself think.

And so here each of us twenty-somethings sits… Lonely is not the right word, although it’s a very real possibility for many of us. Solitary is better. Alone with our souls and the Lover of our souls. Other people still matter, oh how they matter, but they don’t have the power over us that they used to. We are discovering that we “hang always upon the cross of ourselves.” “The mind has cliffs of fall,” and we have begun to peer down over them to learn the depths and the heights. There are tall, bright waves crashing at the bottom.

In Perelandra, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction retelling of the Fall, the one command the green lady must obey is to never spend the night on the “fixed land.” When she goes to sleep she must lie down on one of the floating islands in the seas of her world, and trust God that she will wake up in a place where he still cares for her, even if it’s quite different than any place she imagined or knows.

I am twenty-three, I have clambered onto a floating island, and the fixed land is receding in the distance. I am calling out for it as I watch it go. I am afraid. I know: this is not safe, but it is good.

On Flying

We are two weeks out from the start of school, and I am beginning to get nervous. There is so much to do and think of and plan and write down, not to mention all the time I obviously need to spend worrying about the things I can’t control. Of course, back-to-school nerves are probably one of the more common feelings in the world. There’s a newness and a freshness to that first day that can never compare to the first of January. It’s all short haircuts and tans and deeper voices and words that move faster than they did before and smiles that aren’t yet tired.

But sooner than we expect, all of the gloss and new-clothes smell will wear away and we will be left with those Mondays where our greatest accomplishment is getting out of bed in the morning. I am content in the understanding that some days, even some weeks, 6:43 am may be my proudest moment, so long as I remember that as I stand bleary-eyed in front of a mirror and march into school with a heavy bag on my shoulder, so much above and beyond me is being fulfilled and achieved.

As a child I didn’t necessarily believe I could fly, but neither did I quite believe that I couldn’t. I understood that as far as physics were concerned if I climbed up onto a roof, and took a running leap with my arms outstretched, that the air would not catch me. The ground would catch me, along with all my broken bones. And yet I was fairly sure that the business of soaring and dipping and twisting through the trees and into the clouds didn’t just concern physics. It made a sort of inherent sense to me that though my arms didn’t look or behave like wings (and in fact looked and behaved very much like arms) that didn’t mean they couldn’t actually be wings underneath. If, you know, some day…I did decide to try… I had an eager, soft little heart that loved the air and the heights better than the bruising, itching ground.

Last week we went on a family vacation and the cabin we stayed in had a swing. I swung on it only once, the day we got there, and just a couple minutes on it resurrected a whole hearty body of forgotten loves which I had allowed to be buried by a host of teenage and adult fears of  indeterminate origin. I remembered that swinging is one of the few physical activities that I have never thought makes me look foolish, I remembered my starved appetite for the wind in my ears and my clothes, and I remembered the pure, unexamined desired to get close and into the center of the blue sky. I realized I had never really changed my mind. I am twenty-three and am not quite convinced that I can’t fly.

I‘ll be very clear with you, I have been grumpy today: I was sullen with my sister and got more upset than perhaps was justifiable over a car insurance meeting that went too long. (I almost kicked the cat.) But I want so much to remember that there is a sky. I want to lay my fear down on the concrete curb and look up to see if it might be a good day for flying. I want to be able to remember that swing at 6:43 am in February. I want to be able to set aside my cynicism (just a grown-up brand of fear), and feel the wind from my Lord’s treasuries. The hope in my seven-year-old eyes gazing out into the sky from our backyard swing is no less real than the heavy fears of February. In fact, it might be real-er.

First Year Teaching and Unpaid Debt

I’ve been making notes for this entry since last October. At first I was going to wait a few years to actually say this stuff to the internet-at-large, but I can’t help myself: here we go.

I planned to write a long list of advice for first year teachers, like the one I wrote a year ago when I finished college. But I discovered within about two days of becoming a faculty member alongside wonderful people who wanted to see me succeed, that for every piece of advice there is an equal and opposite piece of advice. So basically, even with the best support system in the world (which, including my parents and former teachers and friends who are a phone call away, I may well have had) you’re going to have to figure it out on your own in the moment, or you’re never going to figure it out at all. And that’s absolutely okay. So that’s what I have to say about that.

But if not advice, what? I guess just a rambling reflection, which is mostly what I do on here anyway. I have grown and changed this year perhaps more than I have in all four years of college. Every day that I have taught, without fail, I have felt both very young and very old. A while back, at play rehearsal I turned to a coworker and said, “There’s five years between me and them, and ten years between me and you, but I feel so much closer in experience to you.” “Yup.” she said. “Weird.” I said. And yet I cry at Caldwell choir concerts, because they inevitably make me feel seventeen again, and while there is something precious about that feeling, it is not quite comfortable either. But being in-between is most of what life is, so this is absolutely okay too.

Looking back I think I went through most of first semester in a bit of shock. I remember one day in September when Lisa came around to take attendance, I told her with a mix of bravado and desperation that they were all present, though I hadn’t even bothered to count them, much less look at my roster. I would doggedly stay up late into the night, making powerpoints and organizing notes, feeling my heart turn to heavy iron whenever a new email appeared unexpectedly in my school inbox. On the rare occasions that I was in a context other than Caldwell, I still couldn’t manage to talk about anything other than school and my students, no matter if my listeners were interested. (Still not great at that, but I’m getting better. I’m becoming more normal again.) Here is a somewhat-exact excerpt of notes I kept for myself throughout that first semester:

Sixteen-year-olds are adorable.

Sixteen-year-olds are little turds who don’t know that teachers have feelings.

At least I haven’t cried in front of students yet. That’s a victory.

I love being observed. It’s the freaking best. It makes me feel safe.

Almost-literal blind exhaustion sometimes hits while driving home.

I stay up late because I want time to myself before I go in the next morning.

It is so hard to get up in the morning. SO hard.

Why does my life have so many binder clips in it now?

Is it going to be like this all year?

IMPORTANT: That day sixth period worked quietly. 11/6. Let it be remembered. [Note: I actually wrote a poem about this day. It’s called “An Ode to My Students’ Silence.”]

But I survived. And stayed marginally sane to boot. I kept in touch with friends who were also first-year-teaching, because the front of a classroom can be a starkly lonely place. It is good to feel as if you’re in the trenches alongside someone else (and now that I’ve briefly taught World War One, that’s an especially vivid metaphor). I watched all of Boy Meets World, and though I remain doubtful that it’s really very kosher to regularly assign essays on a whim at the end of class just because the topic pertains to an issue in your favorite students’ lives, I was reminded that even in the world of nineties sitcoms, it is still possible to be a truly fine teacher and that doing so doesn’t center around making your students happy. And then late one Sunday night in November, when I felt just awful, I found this:

fqjsm

I’m not typically a big charts and stages person, but this is absolute it-gets-better gospel truth. Believe it, cause it’s real. By December, according my notes at the time, I had “all warm fuzzy advent feelings after seeing them sing and getting gifts from them and having them treat me like a real human being and not just a grade machine.” Things were looking up. I was going to be okay and so were they.

In fact, there are a few students to whom I wish I could write individual thank you notes for encouragement they didn’t even know they gave. Highschoolers can cause more pain than they know–but their kindnesses, even unintentional and very small kindnesses, can bring so much joy. The times a student has gone out of his or her way to actually make my day better, I have usually cried (though not in front of them.) And it was a fairly normal but unexpected thing one single student did way back in early December that made me decide not to up and quit when I was feeling a bit desperate.

Really perhaps the thing I have learned most thoroughly this year is the thank you note thing: the value of appreciation and expressing gratitude. When I was a sophomore in college I wrote Dr. Brown a thank you note once and she made a huge deal out of it in front of the rest of the students, and said that sometimes she felt like Christ healing the ten lepers with only one coming back to say thank you. I thought this story was hilarious–I adored Dr. Brown, but she was comparing herself to Jesus, for goodness sake–and would tell it over and over to my English major friends. I no longer think it’s funny. I know exactly what she meant. When you teach and you care that you do it well, you are fighting on the front lines of humanity. You’re teaching the human mind to reach its potential, holding out the world in your hands, trying to get the faces in front of you to comprehend it, to feel their own smallness. There’s so much pressure to get it right, but when you do get it right, often nobody notices, and this is discouraging. To give more than you take, that is what every good teacher does, but no mere mortal can give out of a dry well. We all need water.

So, knowing that, and knowing what I know now especially, I want to shyly and belatedly be grateful to the people who taught me. I didn’t know what it took, and even if I had, I’m not sure I could have understood.  Thank you. Thank you for what you did for me: for crying with me, for laughing with and at me, for graciously thinking it was endearing when I told you bluntly that your class was “not my happy place,” for reading picture books aloud, for letting me run to your room in tears when I first discovered Billy Collins, for handing me that mysterious and wonderful envelope before the New York trip, for letting me sit on a desk during your planning period and just talk and talk and talk. And thank you for what you did for all of us: for heavy worry, for long patience, for giving us the best of what you loved, for volunteering to be Atlas with the world on his shoulders and believing it to be worth the trouble, for finally entrusting each of us to Jesus when it was all that you could do.

I see it a bit more clearly now. Second semester, when my responsibilities began to pick up pace, and when my heart learned to hold on anyway and smile in the wind, I started to care less about what my students thought of me and more about the students themselves. And I didn’t know that in a job in which I was supposed to be the helper, I would routinely feel so helpless to really love them well. So unable and weak. They need so much charity and compassion and help. I know this because I need this things too. I know this because, in our need and inability, we are the same.

Despite all of the doing and learning and trying, the appreciation and the lack thereof, I am discovering a secret which probably most teachers who’ve gone before me know. Education, when you really try to do it right, is debt. An extensive and painfully shining web of unpaid and often unacknowledged debt. We’re all bound and knotted together by it. We give and are given to over and over again, then march off triumphantly into the sunset, as if our spoils are our own, while the ropes of debt tug at our heels. Some days I can’t keep straight who is demanding restitution from whom. There is a colossal owing, and we, none of us, can possibly pay it back. And this, I think, is where education all goes bad or is hatched, where we begin to ceaselessly demand the pound of flesh from one another, or relinquish ourselves to the waist-high waters of grace.

This has been a long and meandering entry, but really there is one reason I have written it: I am preaching to myself. I am saying: “Alice, you feel as if you’ve worked hard and given much, but what you have given is that which was first given you. Your deficits are deep and wide, but they have been filled by a love that is deeper and wider. Your debts have been cancelled by the great Forgiver of debt, the Payment himself. Forgive your debtors as your debts have been forgiven. Look at the world and look at the hands that hold it and remember that you are small. See that your Lord is large and great. Love with liberty and with joy.”

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Lessons from Cinderella and Jake Barnes

I’ve watched a lot of movies since the beginning of college–most of them alone, on a computer screen. I like watching things this way. I feel free to criticize or adore whenever and however I want. I get to watch on my terms. Funnily enough though, when I give myself that choice I almost always choose criticism. I’ve gotten in the habit of quietly dissecting and improving and making-over most everything I watch. But last weekend I went and saw the new, live-action Cinderella with my family. I put my feet up on the empty theater seat in front of me, and let the whole thing carry me away.

It’s a beautiful movie shot in all the color you could wish for and told with complete openness. It looks at grief and joy and meanness and hope and tells each bit as straight as it can. I loved the end: when Cinderella is found because the sound of her voice carries out the open window and her unasked-for forgiveness makes her stepmother sink down and lean against the banister of the stairs with the weight of it. But I think the moment I loved the most was when Cinderella walks into the ball. She has arrived a bit too late for comfort, and she comes down the stairs by herself, with no one to announce her. Strangely, what was most evident to me was not that she is beautiful or hoping to find Kit, but that she is walking into a room alone. I have walked into a room alone, you have walked into a room alone–some days it is the bravest thing that we do. She descends with all eyes on her: nameless to all of them and probably already loathed by every woman in the room. Step by step she approaches the bottom of the stairs, and she has no idea what will happen when she gets there.

Then, late this past Monday night, I found myself on a little mental jag, when I should have been going to sleep. I lay in bed and thought about Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises: where he begins, and where he goes, and, most of all, where he ends up. He pines over Brett, letting his own physical inability to have her smash the side of his face down in the dirt and pummel him with punches again and again. He lets his wounds, real and imaginary, take him over and he throws away his self-respect and his aficion for bullfighting by letting Brett have, and ruin, the hopeful young Romero. But that’s not the way he ends: after everything that happens in Pamplona he literally goes into the sea alone, washes, and comes out clean.

And that’s when I thought of it: Jake’s like Cinderella. Perhaps this is silly and those of you who love Hemingway or fairy tales more fully than I do are looking askance, but let me try to explain.

When Brett sends for Jake, he signs the wire with love and loyally goes, but somehow he has unhooked her from his soul: he eats more than he drinks as they have lunch together, and the last image of the book–the raising of the policeman’s baton–means that Jake is willing to seek manhood and courage and meaning wherever he may have them, and lay the wounds of war and love to rest. This is him walking into the room alone, perilously free of the self-pity and self-sabotage he has had to protect him for so long.

All the good stories tell the same truths (this is why I love literature) and the principles which motivate Jake and Cinderella at their best are very near to one another. Though community and closeness and hands that hold onto yours are very important, there are things that can really only be learned alone. To walk into the room, to “have courage,” to “be kind,” to “get to know the values”: these are ultimately acts chosen by, and affecting, the individual soul.

As I have been thinking about this I keep remembering that this sort of independent bravery is  what I want for my students. The ones of whom I’m the most proud are the ones who are able to love their classmates without being swayed by them, who have found their own feet and are learning to stand on them: to walk down the steps, to raise whatever baton they’ve got.

But then I laugh, because really, who am I kidding? If I am telling the whole truth, I must admit that this freedom is what I want for myself–not to follow the scents and sights around me but instead, to be prepared to be separate, to be new and be different, to transform instead of conform. I want to be willing to find goodness and meaning outside of where the world has told me it must lie, and, though strange eyes may look on, to allow myself to be cut from a different cloth.

Two Weeks

I am a first year teacher, and all year I’ve struggled with how to write on this blog–how to tell the truth, but tell it slant. There have been discarded entries (which I never had in the past) and few which did not really come out how I intended them to. There has also been a lot of staring at the blank page. I want so much to give a clear picture though, because writing helps me understand. The past two weeks have been strange and full and often strangely, fully good, and I want to tell you about them, but even these 336 hours have seemed to contain a lifetime.

I went to play practice for hours every afternoon and night and decorated the set with my favorite books stacked along the back wall.

As part of their prank, the seniors built a ball pit in the room I teach in. So I taught about Imperialism for a few minutes, but then I let my students sit in it and play with all the bright colors, while they wrote letters to someone they were thankful for. And I got to wear a princess crown all that day.

We prayed together during the junior girls’ Bible study and as a faculty at lunch one day–for those who are sick and those who are scared. (Those people are sometimes us.)

Lauren Robinson and I both graded all 44 senior thesis papers in a week and a half. I sat on the floor behind her desk on Wednesday afternoon madly calculating final grades, while the freshmen giggled their way through speech presentations. Late that night the two of us painted the rock, barefoot, with Paul Simon on full volume in her truck. They all passed.

My front tire got slashed by some unknown enemy.

I went down to the gym for a few minutes to watch the juniors and seniors have their last dance lesson. I was charmed by what a good time most of them seemed to be having, but was also deeply grateful that I was no longer out there on the floor.

I ate brunch with Sarah Moon, and we talked about things that were not students and teaching, and it all felt very surreal.

I averaged about four hours of sleep each night.

Students brought me food and Starbucks unbidden and I didn’t know what to do with myself.

It briefly seemed as if my social security number had been stolen by someone in Vermont, and I laughed very hard and happily at the prospect of someone wanting my identity. (It turned out to be a clerical error.)

I got tired of giving critical notes to the students at the end of rehearsal, and just decided they were all cute and could act however they wanted. (Thank God for multiple directors.) Instead, I wandered around Target and Walmart trying to find all the shades of foundation that our supply boxes were running out of and wished I knew something, anything about make-up.

While walking back in from letting my chaotic sixth period do their reading questions outside, I tripped and dropped my large stack of grading all down the stairs. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I sat down and just looked pathetically back at my students, and they picked it all up in a stunned silence.

I watched our pride and joy, You Can’t Take It With You, from the audience each night and it was still funny every time, even when the fireworks didn’t go off. I laughed and I grinned and sometimes I felt very, very sleepy

And then I turned twenty-three, which is simultaneously much older and much younger than I feel.

 

Sometimes, in these past two weeks, I have felt blessed and unaccountably successful. At other times, I have wanted to find a small, cozy hole, crawl into it until we reach July, and then bring the calendar to a full stop, preferably for quite some time. But after oversleeping this morning and then cleaning the bathroom while listening to Andrew Peterson, I feel smaller, more on kilter, as if I can fit comfortably into my skin again–I think I had been leaking out of it for a while.

When I write I try to organize and find meaning between all the little things, but it is not always easy. Sometimes I must be content to believe that the truth is somewhere between “Life is pain, highness,” and “Love is all we have left in this world, Grandpa.” I must trust, trust, trust, that my God knows the substance of all this: the bungled works cited pages, the loudly laughing teenagers, the spray paint that took days to wear out of the creases of my fingernails, the chai tea lattes on my desk. He knows what all these little shadows mean.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.